Light from the Sidra

Toldot ('Generations'). 22 November 2014. 29 Cheshvan 5775

Torah: Genesis 25:19-28:9. Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

The sons of Issac

History, they say, is written by the victors. No nation likes to dwell on its failures and shortcomings. No civilisation leaves behind it a series of monuments to losers and lost wars. The ancient superpowers, therefore, created elaborate mythologies to explain their greatness. The Romans told of how Romulus and his twin brother Remus were sired by Mars the god of war and raised by a she wolf and that, following a struggle to the death between the two titans, Romulus emerged victorious to found the city and civilisation named after him. The legend most likely developed in order to encapsulate Rome's self-image, its origins and moral values.

By contrast, the Bible is without parallel in its true-to-life accounts of the failures of its principal men. The Hebrew Scriptures present us with three-dimensional warts-and-all portraits of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the Hebrew nation. Jewish legends picture Abraham as a religious visionary and reformers who saw beyond the idolatry of his age and grasped the truth that there is only one God. There are stories that tell of the young Abraham breaking the idols manufactured by his father Terah and of the father of the Hebrew nation being cast into the fire like Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego. There are stories of Jacob studying in the yeshiva of Shem. Of course, these tales developed out of a desire on the part of Israel’s sages to portray the patriarchs as super-righteous individuals whose merits could be passed on to their descendants but they are devoid of any foundation in the biblical text. Although Genesis presents Abraham to us as a model of faith, he was also a flawed individual whose righteousness was accounted to him simply because he believed God (Genesis 15:6).

We now come to the toldot, or history, of Jacob which occupies most of the second half of Genesis. This patriarch, in the words of Jewish biblical scholar Everett Fox, ‘emerges as the most dynamic and most human personality in [Genesis]. The stories about him cover fully half of Genesis, and reveal a man who is both troubled and triumphant. Most interestingly, he, and not Avraham, gives his name to the people of Israel.’

At the beginning of the prophecy of Malachi, HASHEM states that he loves Israel. Incredibly, the people respond by demanding to know how he has loved them! God rarely states that he loves anyone but he responds to Israel’s insult by reminding the people that he had ‘loved’ Jacob but ‘hated’ Esau, and had proved it by the way he had dealt with both nations.

The first declaration of the love of God for Israel is found in Deuteronomy 7. HASHEM loves Israel and chose them not because there was anything in them worthy of his love but simply because he chose to love them because of his faithfulness to the covenant he established with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God’s actions speak louder than his words. Only after he had redeemed his people from the tyranny of Egypt and brought the nation he had formed to the borders of the Promised Land did HASHEM express his love verbally. None of us merit the love of God. The only reason God loves anyone – including the Jewish people – is because he chooses to.

Take Jacob and Esau. Before they were even born, HASHEM determined that the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). The divine choice had nothing to do with ancestry for the twin brothers shared the same father and mother. Nor was his love the result of any action – good or evil – on the part of either brother, for neither of them had yet been born. Jacob was no better than Esau – certainly not while they were in the womb of Rebecca – but God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. God’s love flows from his sheer goodness and grace.

We can’t attribute God’s favour to Jacob because of anything good he would do in the future. He tricked Esau out of his birthright, he deceived his father and took the name of HASHEM in vain by claiming that God had led him to what was in reality a goat his mother had cooked.

It should be remembered that none of the family emerged from the birthright debacle untainted. Esau should not have traded his birthright for the lentil stew his brother cooked. He was an unspiritual man who cared more about grub than God and more about his belly than blessing. Rebecca should not have conspired against her husband by instructing her son in the tactics of deceit. Isaac should have given Jacob the blessing of the firstborn because HASHEM had revealed to Rebecca, when she was pregnant, that Jacob would be the greater of the two. Talk about a dysfunctional family!

When it comes to spirituality, until the age of 97, which was the age at which he took leave of his uncle Laban, Jacob lived off his own wits. Until Jacob came face to face with God in Genesis 32, HASHEM had been to him only ‘the God of Abraham’ and ‘the Fear of Isaac.’ Only after his encounter with God at the Jabbok ford did HASHEM become El Elohe Israel – ‘God the God of Israel’. Not until his life was two thirds over did Jacob confess HASHEM as his God! But in all that time God favoured him, watched over him and blessed him.

In 2011, USA Today published an article which revealed that many synagogue members and office holders today are atheists. They attend shul because, amongst other things, it gives them a sense of ethnic identity. The percentage of atheists among Jews is, apparently, much greater than in any other people group. And yet the Jews still exist as a people because their God loves them even if they don’t love him.

All of which begs the question: If you are Jewish, where do you stand with God? Do you love him with all your heart and soul as you should? Is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel your God or is he just the God of your ancestors? Who is your God? HASHEM or someone or something else? Are you ‘Jacob’ or ‘Esau,’ by which I mean, do you live your life looking to God or do you rely on your own wit and wisdom to get you through life? And are you ready to meet God? Do you know that all will be well with you when you depart this life?

These were the kind of questions Jacob had to face and it was only when he became, as it were, a new man that his questions were answered. He could they face everything life could throw at him and he could face his brother Esau, whom he had wronged so long before.

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